The first Ukrainian I met was called Peter. On my first visit to Kyiv, exactly 20 years ago, Peter introduced himself to me in front of the monument to the 150,000 Jews massacred at Babi Yar. He was a retired accountant from Croydon but had been born outside Kharkiv, in rural eastern Ukraine. In 1943, when he was 16, the Red Army swept south to end the Nazi occupation. Russian soldiers dealt summarily with anyone suspected of co-operating with the Germans.
Peter was drafted. He protested. “Who is this boy?” an officer asked. A village woman replied, “His uncle was our police inspector, whom you shot in the orchard this morning.”
Peter deserted at dawn the next morning and walked 2,000 kilometres west, to Vienna. There a Wehrmacht officer found him a job in military records, writing to bereaved mothers to tell them their sons were heroes of the Reich. He arrived in England, a refugee, in 1947.
This was his first visit back to Ukraine. He looked at the Babi Yar monument strewn with roses. “And my grandfather was a Jew,” he said.
We wait to see how far the fire that has been lit by Russia’s invasion of Crimea will spread. At first our managerial government was less inclined to support Ukrainian sovereignty than it was to defend a different hearth, that of the City of London. In the end, David Cameron was persuaded, along with other EU leaders in Brussels, to announce cumulative economic sanctions if Russia refuses to talk and ultimately to withdraw its troops.
Managerial politics already looks far more reckless than it did a week ago. Leaving aside that this crisis has shown an uncanny likeness, from its first day, to the preludes of the Second World War and the Balkan wars (Hitler’s insistence on protecting ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, Slobodan Milosevic’s on protecting ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo), it is clear that Vladimir Putin will have Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, if he can.
But a moral imperative holds here, too. Foreign policy, at its most primitive, is predicated on a willingness to abide by agreements. And specific pacts command our actions in Ukraine: the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994 and Nato’s 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which notes that “Nato allies will continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence” as well as its “territorial integrity”.
Inseparable from those obligations is the willingness to bear their cost. President Obama’s threat of “significant costs” for Russia cannot be one-sided if they really are to be incurred. It will cost us all significantly to make Putin’s actions cost Russia enough to make him pull back. Referendum in Crimea; threat of secession; intimidation and provocation in eastern Ukraine; a transfer of control over events into the hands of the thuggish and militaristic – all these illustrate the true gist of his intentions.
Individuals have grasped this far faster than the international community, for it is, always, a deeply private feeling to grasp that something has changed for good and must be faced. That feeling was written on the face of Colonel Yuri Mamchur, the commander of tactical aviation at Belbek, when he marched his 300 unarmed men up the road to try to regain access to their occupied airbase; it is in the open letter of Mustafa Cemilev, a leader of Crimea’s Tatars, with its subtextual memory of Stalin’s emptying the region of 200,000 Tatars in 1944; it is in the tense expressions of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar women protesting against the occupation of Simferopol.
The weird element of all such situations is that life goes on. From Yalta, my friend Yuri jokes on the phone – “Are you coming to visit Ukraine or Russia?” – and insists it is quiet there. In Odessa, a Russian-speaking, pro-Yanukovych city, a huge pro-Ukraine demo indicates a possibly unexpected fall of the cards, but at this moment my Odessa parents-in-law are not talking to each other (he is Ukrainian, she is from Siberia). Another relation lost his civil-service job when the government in Kyiv changed. I asked how he was taking it. I was told he was very happy, spending all his time in bed with his new lover.
Yet if the fire in Crimea is not put out, it will certainly creep across Ukraine, across other former republics, the Baltic states, Europe. At the very least, its destabilising and corrupting consequences will be dire. A pretext of “protecting” ethnic populations – be they German, Serb or Russian – is historically how it sparks. And the only way to put it out is to show that honouring our guarantees means more to us than the cost of doing so.